Convenient Untruths

Government officials lied about 9/11. Not in a terrible, devastating way, of course -- but through various, small details that twisted the story and made it seem like they had done a better job than they really did.

In The Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11, John Farmer, who served as a senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, shows how the mendacities unfolded: Officials claimed that they were surprised by the attacks on the World Trade Center but that they barely missed intercepting the American Airlines jet as it crashed into the Pentagon "at a speed of 530 miles per hour." Additionally, White House representatives said that they had known about United Airlines 93, which had taken off from Newark Liberty Airport in the morning only to be hijacked -- and that Air Force fighter jets were prepared to shoot it down if it approached Washington. At least this was the story told by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other Bush administration officials -- a story that soon "attained the status of national myth." But the government was not nearly as prepared as suggested, according to Farmer. The military was nowhere near stopping American Airlines Flight 77 from hitting the Pentagon. Air Force fighter jets were not "scrambled" to pursue United 93 until after it had crashed into a Pennsylvania field, and the fighter jet pilots were not authorized to shoot the commercial plane down.

These are relatively minor untruths about the events of September 11, particularly compared to the claims of the "9/11 Truth" movement that the terrorist attack was an inside job. But together, the deceptions add up to a sordid tale of officials who were ashamed that they had not been able to protect Americans from a terrorist attack and who wanted desperately to cover up their mistakes. The truth is that the passengers of United 93 were left alone with terrorists in the cockpit, and top-level government officials were unaware of their plight even though the hijack was not a secret by that point. Two planes had already hit New York, and the passengers on United 93 were calling their loved ones to tell them about what was happening to them. Flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw spoke to her husband on the phone, explaining that they "were discussing how to overpower the hijackers, including boiling water to throw on the hijackers as they rushed them." Somehow, the vast apparatus of the American national security forces had failed abysmally, and United 93 was headed toward Washington unobstructed. Again, no jets were scrambled to take the plane down -- the fighters did not know about the hijack until it was too late, Farmer explains. Were it not for the courage of Bradshaw and other passengers, the plane would have crashed into the nation's Capitol, killing far more people.

The terrorist attacks have been covered extensively and compellingly in works such as Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower, and in Universal Pictures' United 93. And unfortunately, the narrative of The Ground Truth is not so masterfully crafted as any of these examples. Nevertheless, Farmer deftly hones in on the nation's bureaucratic morass leading up to September 11 and the government's failure to respond on the day of the attacks, distinguishing his book from other accounts.

Farmer makes a compelling case for the weaselly nature of Bush administration officials, showing, for example, how Cheney appeared on Meet the Press and recounted small lies about how the fighter jets had been tracking United 93 and how "the shoot-down authorization had been given" on Sept. 17, even though this version was "both self-serving and completely untrue." Farmer does not spare Clinton officials, either, detailing former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger's attempt to hide National Archive documents under a trailer at a construction site. He highlights the ineptitude of American bureaucracy and the inherent flaws of its national security, and he shows that horrific attacks could easily occur again unless there is a drastic federal government overhaul, including everything from a revamping of its emergency communications system to improved coordination and information sharing among intelligence agencies. And even in the less-than-literary hands of a lawyer like Farmer, the story of 9/11 is still terrifyingly vivid. "In the cockpit, a flight attendant pleaded with the hijackers not to kill her," writes Farmer about the final moments of United 93. "The cockpit voice recorder picked up the sounds of her murder."

The Ground Truth is a haunting account of government failure -- one perhaps that should not be read on a United Airlines flight, as I did during a trip from Washington to Moscow. Somewhere over Nova Scotia, the pilot announced that the plane had to return to Dulles International Airport because of a hydraulic leak, and I wondered if the pilots were telling the truth or if there were another reason for the rerouting. During our return The Ground Truth became even more gripping. We landed without incident. Good thing, since I had learned from Farmer that whatever the next national disaster is, chances are that we will be just as unprepared as we were on 9/11 so long as things remain as they are now.